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W.Va. lawmakers set for '99 session

January 12, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION, Charles Town

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Increased funding for new school construction, expansion of W.Va. 9 and solving flooding problems in Berkeley County are among the issues local lawmakers want to see addressed in the Legislature, which begins Wednesday.

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Del. Larry Faircloth and others have already said it is important for local schools to make sure there is enough space for Berkeley County's school population, which is growing by about 300 pupils a year.

Freshman Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, said he will work on developing a new funding formula for school construction in the Eastern Panhandle.

Unger said he wants a formula that would allow local school officials to keep a percentage of local taxes that are typically funneled to Charleston.

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The percentage would be based on the rate of student growth, said Unger.

Del. Vicki Douglas, D-Berkeley, said it could be difficult to convince other lawmakers in the state that the formula is needed.

"If they look at it as a perk, it may be difficult to sell," said Douglas.

Faircloth said he is under the impression that because student population is shrinking in many counties, school construction funding from the state School Building Authority could increase to growing counties like Berkeley.

Along with schools, flooding problems in northern and southern Berkeley County also need to be addressed, Unger said. Growth in those areas quickly outpaced storm water systems, causing frequent flooding in areas such as Inwood, Berkeley Station Road and Bedington, he said.

Unger said his priority will be finding state funding for a storm water management construction plan.

Berkeley County Commission President D. Wayne Dunham agreed the flooding problems are a priority.

Correcting flooding problems along Berkeley Station Road alone will cost $500,000, said Dunham, who added the county does not have the money for the work.

"These are major issues coming down the pike that will require enormous capital investments to keep up," Unger said. "We need to do it quickly because the growth is occurring so fast."

Vocal support for widening W.Va. 9 to four lanes continues to mount despite opposition from some who believe the road to too costly and elaborate.

Unger said he is concerned about the status of the $70 million highway project, even though officials have said approval by the federal Department of Interior is the only remaining obstacle.

"We've been hearing that for the last 10 years," Unger said. "I don't want to wait another ten years."

Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, said state lawmakers need to emphasize to Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt the importance of letting the project proceed. Doyle said most of the opposition has been "nonsensical and unfair."

Del. Charles S. Trump, R-Morgan, said the local delegation needs to do "anything we can" to push the project, whether lobbying the state Division of Highways or the federal government.

Gambling is also expected to be an issue this year.

Lawmakers said they are expected to consider a proposal that would legalize payouts from video poker machines sometimes found in private clubs and retail stores.

The machines are legal as entertainment, but payouts are illegal.

Regardless, officials say payouts are common, despite police efforts to crack down on the problem.

Under the current situation, the state is either criticized for allowing illegal gambling or failing to tax the winnings, Doyle said.

Doyle and Del. Dale Manuel, D-Jefferson, said they have not taken a stand on the issue.

But Doyle said he supports allowing Charles Town Races to have coin payouts from its video lottery machines, a second gambling issue that could get attention this session.

Currently, video lottery players at the track receive a paper validation slip from the machines which tally a players' winnings.

Players must then take the slips to a validation window to be cashed.

Gamblers at the track want the machines to pay out winnings in coins so they can move freely from machine to machine, said Bill Bork Jr., marketing director at the track.

Doyle said allowing coin payouts would allow the track to remain competitive with other tracks in the East.

Manuel said he would want Jefferson County residents to vote on the issue.

Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley said adding a fourth judge in the Eastern Panhandle and expanding correctional facilities for teenage offenders are issues that need to be addressed in the Legislature.

Dockets in Panhandle circuit courts are full and will continue to grow, increasing the demand for a fourth judge in the area, he said.

Overington said he thinks state officials need to reexamine the idea of converting the Eastern Regional Jail near Martinsburg to a juvenile detention center despite concerns it would be too costly.

"I don't have the solution," he said. "We know what the problem is."

Overington said local officials are being forced to transport teenage offenders long distances to be housed in correctional facilities, while others are being released because there is no place for them.

That puts the public at risk, Overington said.

Douglas, however, said it would probably be cheaper to build a new juvenile detention center rather than try to convert the old jail.

Lawmakers said other issues during the 60-day session include funding for renovation of a former B&0 Railroad roundhouse off East Martin Street, funding for a downtown revitalization of Charles Town and correcting a $48 million debt in the Public Employees Insurance Agency, the health insurance program for state employees.

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